At a press conference today, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said this about immigration reform:
As you all know, for the last 15 months, I’ve talked about the need to get immigration reform done. This is an important issue in our country. It’s been kicked around forever, and it needs to be dealt with. Having said that, we outlined our principles last week to our members, principles that our members by and large support. It was put together by the leadership team, and they believe it. But I’ve never underestimated the difficulty in moving forward this year. The reason I’ve said that we need a step-by-step, common-sense approach to this is so we can build trust with the American people that we’re doing this the right way. And frankly, one of the biggest obstacles we face is the one of trust. The American people, including many of my members, don’t trust that the reform that we’re talking about will be implemented as it was intended to be. The president seems to change the health-care law on a whim, whenever he likes. Now, he is running around the country telling everyone that he’s going to keep acting on his own. He keeps talking about his phone and his pen. And he’s feeding more distrust about whether he is committed to the rule of law. Listen, there’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws. It’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.
He didn’t say he was dropping immigration reform, nor did he say this year is impossible. It is just going to be hard, as we’ve heard before. Aides emphasized that this was an assessment of where things stand at present.
We’ve written many times that it is good policy and good politics to get immigration reform done, but there is a legitimate issue as to when to do it. On one hand, there is no doubt the Dems and the president are semi-desperate to make a deal. They need some accomplishment before the election. They’ve delivered virtually nothing to Hispanic interest groups, and they want to get off the topic of Obamacare. It stands to reason that the GOP could get the best deal now, especially with Democrats’ real fear that they will lose the Senate.
On the other hand, there is a rationale for the GOP doing this next year. If the GOP does have a Senate majority, the bill will be even more to their liking. And if the biggest chance of taking the Senate is a nonstop focus on Obamacare, then they really don’t want to go forward now. I don’t think Republicans believe it is more treacherous for 2016 contenders if the deal is made in 2015 than in 2014. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) championed immigration reform in 2007 and got the nomination in 2008. Moreover, it’s not as if the potential GOP presidential candidates haven’t made their positions clear. Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.) have all cast votes and will be bound by those; most governors have made clear they favor some sort of earned citizenship or legalization. No one will be able to hide his position.
As for the threat that the president may take unilateral action, the argument cuts two ways. On one hand, Congress could pass something now that doesn’t go into effect until Obama leaves, thereby putting enforcement in the hands of the next president. (In other words, it’s kind of a phony excuse.) Executive action is more of a problem for the president than for the GOP; Republicans — like the Dems on the shutdown — might not mind the president demonstrating once again his contempt for the Constitution by making up laws. What better way to get the conservative base riled up?
It isn’t clear whether it is better to move in 2014 or 2015; smart strategists can make the case either way. However, it is worthwhile for Boehner at some point this year to make the clear promise he will bring up a bill along the principles outlined either this year or next; the GOP should, as it has with Obamacare, show voters they have alternatives, even if a concrete bill isn’t signed into law.
Republicans don’t think they need immigration reform to have a very good 2014. Obamacare and the CBO have given them, many believe, all the ammo they need. They would be more willing to pass an Obamacare alternative than an immigration bill, since there is likely greater agreement on the former.
Notwithstanding any of this, the GOP presidential nominee must favor some form of immigration reform and propose a solution to the 11 million already here. If not, they are more likely to be felled by an electorate that gets more diverse every year. As to whether they move in 2014 or 2015 or the nominee (especially a governor) merely runs on it in 2016, count me as agnostic.